What is a muffin? I wish I had access to the Oxford English Dictionary corpus so I could research the etymology of the name. My muffin history research might just have to be ongoing. For now, I’ll give you my definition of a muffin and a few resources for baking tips specific to them.
- Muffins are not cupcakes: I’ve seen muffins described as “cake-like” or more like mini quick breads. Now, isn’t a cake-like muffin just a cupcake? It’s not that I have anything against cupcakes. It’s hard not to love them. However, I believe that muffins have more potential to be healthful and I feel obligated to make them closer to that end of the spectrum than the cake end. This doesn’t mean all muffins should be bland fiberful rocks. Healthful muffins can still have fabulous texture, flavor, and sweet-tooth-satisfying richness.
- Anything goes: I realized after writing definition number one that there aren’t a whole lot of other constraints I put on muffins. When I scan the internet of cookbooks for recipes I gobble up each successive muffin (at least the image of these unmade treats flying around in my mind). I also immediately think of ways to tweak each recipe, either to make it healthier or more unique. We all love a good blueberry muffin but it’s nice to try something different once in a while…or more often. You may think all the possible muffin ingredient combinations have been thought of already but I highly doubt that. I thought of one just the other day that I’m pretty sure has never been done before. All in all, whether it’s sweet, savory, or neutral a good muffin can be full of unique ingredients in unique combinations or simply and old favorite.
- Size matters: Why are all the muffins sold in cafes and coffee shops so huge? Their tops bulge up and out over their paper liners like love handles over tight pants. We have become accustomed to seeing and eating large muffins but home made ones don’t have to be that big. You can fill your muffin cups as scantily or as generously as you want (just adjust baking time accordingly) and petite little muffins are no less worthy than their monumental counterparts. Sometimes the beast way to make food a smarter choice diet wise is to limit portion size.
- Ingredients matter too: Didn’t I just say anything goes? Well, when it comes to ingredient quality I try not to compromise. Muffins are supposed to be healthful, right? Use un-messed-around-with grains (whole grains whenever possible), natural sweeteners, real eggs (unless we’re talking vegan muffins), seasonal fruits and veggies, and generally fresh, wholesome ingredients. It makes a difference in taste and it makes eating the finished product all that more satisfying because you know truly good things went into it.
I came across some excellent muffin-baking advice on The Joy of Baking. The warning not to over mix is familiar: I remember my mom telling me not to stir the batter too much when I helped her bake. My trusty copy of Joy of Cooking also has great how-to guidelines and a good basic recipe that can serve as a blank slate for experimentation (p. 634). Some of my favorite unusual and healthful muffin recipes come from my mom’s tattered old Laurel’s Kitchen cookbook.
That’s it for now. Next it’s time for recipes and pictures!